Hollywood looks deeper into Africa

'This is Africa," says an African to an American in "Sahara," set in Nigeria and Mali, "and nobody cares about Africa."

To a large extent, he's right. For proof, look at the movie itself - standard buddy fare about American salvagers seeking a Civil War ship that somehow wound up in an African desert. All the heroes are white, except Hispanic star Penélope Cruz, and African tribulations (tyranny, warlords, violence) serve as little more than an exotic backdrop.

Even the main crux of the plot - a plague of toxic pollution - galvanizes the characters mostly because it's headed for the Atlantic Ocean and thence to New York City's crowded coast. Why, people who buy multiplex tickets dwell there!

This sort of approach to Africa is common. Mass-market movies hardly ever set their stories there - and when they do, as in "Out of Africa" and "White Mischief," they're mostly interested in photogenic landscapes. Africa is almost as much of a "dark continent" for moviegoers today as in the past.

There's a grim irony in this, at a time when headlines about western Sudan are crying out to the world for attention, just as events in Somalia did a dozen years ago. It takes catastrophe of huge proportions to focus American minds on African issues.

"Sahara" aside, though, times may be changing. Recent months have seen a small spate of movies about Africa, and "Hotel Rwanda" received multiple Oscar nominations.

• "The Interpreter," directed by Sydney Pollack, stars Nicole Kidman as a United Nations interpreter with South African ties and Sean Penn as a Secret Service agent trying to head off the assassination of an African tyrant. As in "Sahara," most of the good characters are white, most of the bad ones black. But there's real recognition of how African peoples have been exploited and manipulated, and a sincere call for organizations like the UN to bring order out of anarchy.

• "Hotel Rwanda" tells the fact-based story of a hotel manager who protects Tutsi refugees from their Hutu enemies. Americans had heard about this civil war in news reports, but its full extent - around a million people slaughtered - was so staggering it was hard to grasp. Terry George's movie strives to render the horrific situation vividly.

• "In My Country," directed by John Boorman, stars Samuel L. Jackson as an American reporter who visits South Africa to cover hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, designed to elicit facts of apartheid atrocities by offering amnesty to people who admitted their wrong-doing. Actress Juliette Binoche plays a white South African poet attending the hearings for more personal reasons.

Due this year is "Sometimes in April," produced for HBO television by Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck, with Debra Winger and Idris Elba in a story set against the Rwandan genocide. And occasionally an actual African movie gets United States distribution, such as last year's excellent "Moolaadé" from New Yorker Films, made by Ousmane Sembène, the legendary Senegalese director.

Do these movies indicate renewed attention to Africa by the entertainment industry? Since none have been major hits, one shouldn't expect a flood of similar films. But even an ongoing trickle would be an improvement over the longtime tendency to treat African events as afterthoughts, at best.

The minitrend may also reveal aspects of the current American mind-set that Americans themselves are only dimly aware of.

Movies like "Hotel Rwanda" and "In My Country" are grounded in "the undefined but persistent feelings of guilt that Americans ... feel about contemporary Africa," says Richard Peña, program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Observers often feel the continent looks "like a train wreck," Mr. Peña continues, "and we [Americans] are nervous about getting involved since it's not 'our' place. These films celebrate Africans who tried to do something about their lives and political situation.... But not very far in the background is the glaring sense of inaction on the part of the United States and the rest of the 'first world.' "

Whatever their other qualities, such movies bring Africa alive to a degree that news reports and C-SPAN briefings can't reach. And while "Sahara" and "The Interpreter" sport largely white casts, "In My Country" and "Hotel Rwanda" feature enough black characters to signal black perspectives on African problems.

The same can't be said of the German drama "Nowhere in Africa," which won the Oscar for best foreign-language film in 2003, or the Oscar-draped 1985 smash "Out of Africa," which was more about Robert Redford and Meryl Streep than their Kenyan neighbors. Ditto for "Cry Freedom," which gave more attention to an American journalist (Kevin Kline) than to the real-life South African activist (Denzel Washington) whose death he's investigating.

And then there are notably offensive pictures like "Black Hawk Down," about American troops sent to Mogadishu in late 1993 to disable a Somali warlord. It portrays Africans as faceless (black) masses defined entirely by their ignorance of what's good for them and their reliance on (white) saviors to make their world a less wretched place.

Still, even movies that skirt around African realities may have some educational value, especially for younger viewers. Just as many teachers found the Holocaust drama "Schindler's List" a helpful classroom tool, they may use "In My Country" to raise African awareness among their pupils.

The time may come when Americans care about Africa in ways the "Sahara" cynic can't imagine. If so, films like these will have helped to pave the way.

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